Shot on a shoestring budget in 105 degree heat in just under 44 days, Emilio Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing (1987) revisits the tawdry comings and goings of oversexed socially repressed youth – a theme common place throughout the teen movie circuit that director Delmer Daves merely suggested in his 1959 classic, A Summer Place. The story is based largely on screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s youthful recollections on a series of summer vacations she spent with her own family in the Catskills.
Described as a coming of age fable, Dirty Dancing actually had an arduous journey from screenplay to screen. Bergstein’s original draft ‘It’s My Turn’ ended up as a Michael Douglas vehicle with all its dance sequences cut out, much to Bergstein’s dismay.Revising the project considerably before deciding to do a complete rewrite from scratch, Bergstein next pitched the idea to MGM where it was endlessly tinkered with before effectively being retired. Eventually, Bergstein moved on to Vestron Pictures where Dirty Dancing was green-lit for pre-production. As for choreography, director Ardolino turned to Kenny Ortega, a dancer in training under the expert tutelage of Gene Kelly.
However, casting the film proved deceptively difficult. Initially, Ardolino had optioned Billy Zane for the role of Johnny – first conceived as a Latin/Italian lothario. Bergstein had based Johnny on her own chance meeting with Michael Terrance – a dance instructor moonlighting in the Catskills in 1985. When initial dance test footage of Zane failed to meet the director’s expectations, newcomer Patrick Swayze was cast instead; a decision that did not bode well with costar Jennifer Grey. She had worked with Swayze previously on Red Dawn and their collaboration had not been a pleasant one.
So too did Swayze’s agent discourage his client from accepting the part. However, Swayze was a dancer at heart and, having read and liked the script, he went over his agent’s head to accept the role. It was a fortuitous decision. The resulting film would transform Patrick Swayze into an international super star and household heartthrob virtually overnight.
As for Jennifer Grey, the daughter of Oscar-winning actor, Joel Grey – she quickly resolved the tensions between she and Swayze off camera and the two began a symbiotic relationship that eventually expressed itself as fiery passion on the dance floor. It also blossomed into mutual appreciation and respect for one another’s acting techniques.Supporting players proved almost as difficult to cast.
Though Jerry Orbach and Jane Brucker easily signed their contracts, virtually all other supporting parts went through a considerable struggle to get filled. Sex therapist and personal friend to Bergstein, Dr. Ruth Westheimer balked at playing Mrs. Schumacher when she learned the part involved being a kleptomaniac. Signed to play Mrs. Houseman, Lynn Lipton fell ill and was replaced by Kelly Bishop instead.
The film’s plot tells the tale of Frances 'Baby' Houseman (Grey), a naive rich kid who goes slumming on the wrong side of the tracks with Johnny Castle (Swayze), a struggling dance instructor possessing genuine talents both on the dance floor and in the bedroom. The wrinkle of course is that Johnny is actually a great guy whose looks lead to his being put upon by wealthy/frisky middle-aged women that frequent the resort in the Catskills where Baby and her family are staying.At first meet, Johnny and Baby’s moralities clash. She finds him obnoxious. He thinks she’s a kittenish prude. However, gradually the ice between these two begins to melt.
Through Baby’s eyes Johnny begins to believe in himself. He even considers the prospect of settling down.However, when Johnny’s dance partner, Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes) becomes pregnant by a waiter at the hotel, then suffers a botched abortion, Baby’s father, Jake (Jerry Orbach) naturally assumes the aborted child is Johnny’s mistake.The resulting animosity between Jake, Baby and Johnny is, of course, eventually resolved in the film’s climactic dance showdown, book ending a ‘love conquers all’ scenario that audiences had no difficulty swallowing.
Hardly subtle, though nevertheless effective, Dirty Dancing remains a touchstone of the typical ‘80s feel good movie.Ardolino’s direction is smooth and assured. There’s not that much substance here but the intoxicating mix of ‘60s pop tunes and then contemporary mega hits – most notably the Jennifer Warnes/Bill Medley runaway song success, ‘The Time Of My Life’ – serve this paper-thin narrative well.
Swayze’s dancing prowess is never in question. To find him a subtly nuanced actor who handles the light comedy and more intensive dramatic elements with ease is perhaps more of a revelation. Grey holds her own during the dance routines though she clearly isn’t in the same league as her costar.In retrospect, the film isn’t high art, though upon further reflection it retains its allure as diverting entertainment – easy on the eyes as it sets the feet loosely tapping; the hips slightly gyrating.
Made available on DVD in four previous DVD transfers, the first two, (film only and collector’s edition) not enhanced for widescreen televisions, Dirty Dancing re-emerges for its second outing on Blu-Ray - this time as a 'Keepsake Edition'. The results, this time out are a marked improvement over the previous Blu-ray release that had been mastered from the same tired elements as its predecessors.
Colors tend to pop more on the Keepsake edition than on the previous Blu-Ray. Instances of edge enhancement and pixelization that were prevalent on the previous Blu-Ray have also been corrected on this reissue. Film grain has been more naturally realized. ‘Jaggies’ that appeared in detailing of wood railings, brick and roofing have all been corrected. This is probably as good as this film will ever look in 1080p. The soundtrack is a lossless remaster as opposed to the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that accompanied the first Blu-Ray release.
There are lots of extras – most of them direct imports from the previously issued DVDs: two separate audio commentaries, a look back at the making of the film, locations, the music, as well as tributary featurettes on the late Emile Ardolino, Jerry Orbach and, of course, Patrick Swayze. A few featurettes on the art of dancing, outtakes, an extensive stills gallery, music videos, multi-angle options for various sequences in the film, deleted/extended scenes, the Eleanor Bergstein script, a fan reel, trailer and trivia track round out this very comprehensive Blu-Ray offering. There's also some snazzy packaging and a collectible 'hard bound' booklet with some nicely reproduced photo and PR art for the collector to enjoy. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)